‘I’VE GOTTA BE ME’: The Complex Life of Sammy Davis Jr.

April 18, 2018
Photo from the Estate of Altovise Davis.

The recently released documentary, “Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” begins with a clip of Davis performing onstage, in which he tells the audience: “I’m colored, Jewish and Puerto Rican. When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out.”

The line, which elicits raucous laughter and thunderous applause, serves as an introduction to the documentary’s attempt to unravel the complexity of one of America’s greatest entertainers.

Written by Laurence Maslon and directed by Emmy Award-winner Sam Pollard, the documentary premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year and will be screened at the April 25 opening gala of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. It will also be shown on PBS stations later this year as part of the American Masters series.

“It’s such an extraordinary film about an extraordinary entertainer, not just in how Davis made his way through America over decades, but also his role as an activist,” said the film festival’s executive director, Hilary Helstein.

After the film’s screening, there will be a Q-and-A with George Schlatter (creator of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”), actor Tom Dreesen and Davis’ son, Manny Davis. Actor Stan Taffel — Davis’ archivist, will moderate the Q-and-A.

In the 100-minute documentary, Pollard has rounded up Hollywood legends such as Schlatter, Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Kim Novak, the late Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg and Quincy Jones to share their memories and insights about the legendary performer who died in 1990 at the age of 64.

“I know there’s sort of a kinship between the plight of a Negro and the plight of a Jew: the oppression, the segregation, the constant trying to survive and trying to achieve dignity.” — Sammy Davis Jr.

The film shines a light on Davis’ formidable talents as a singer, dancer, actor and impressionist. It homes in on his hardscrabble childhood, when he began performing with his family at the age of 3 and never went to school. And it focuses on Davis’ struggles as a Black man trying to live in a white-dominated world.

“[Davis] was such a unique blend of talent and insecurity and anger and perseverance — in what he went through to being accepted,” we hear from one of the film’s voiceovers. “He was a complicated Black man in a society where race and culture have always posited certain challenges.”

Davis was one of the members of the “Rat Pack,” a group of entertainers including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop and others who socialized together while performing in Las Vegas and in Hollywood movies in the 1960s. Yet, as the film points out, while his Rat Pack buddies would stay in hotels on The Strip, Davis was forced to head to the outskirts of town to stay at ‘Black Only’ hotels.

When he fell in love with white actress Kim Novak, Columbia Studios threatened to ruin both their careers if they married. Davis ended up marrying a Black woman to quell the brewing scandal.

In 1943, at the age of 18, Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army’s first integrated infantry unit, where he was subjected to such overt racial prejudice that he eventually punched out one of his colleagues. In an interview in the film, Davis speaks about how he was painted white and had urine poured into his beer.

Despite working with his Rat Pack friend Frank Sinatra to help campaign for John F. Kennedy’s presidential run, Kennedy refused to allow Davis to perform with the Rat Pack at his inauguration, because Davis had married Swedish actress May Britt, a white woman, at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in 31 states.

Davis was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and participated in the 1963 March on Washington alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

And yet, he would later end up alienated by many people within the Black community due to his support of Republican President Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign — even though he had been a lifelong Democrat.

Davis and his new wife, Altovise — at Nixon’s invitation — would become the first Black people invited to stay at the White House (sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom no less). But in a clip included in the documentary, he speaks about how he later apologized for supporting Nixon, which he considered a mistake.

Sammy Davis Jr. in a scene from the documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Photo from the Estate of Altovise Davis.

The episode cements the movie’s title, which, while also the name of Davis’ signature song, underscores his role as a trailblazer who did things on his own terms, no matter the consequences.

Davis was the first Black man to do impressions of white people. Norman Lear, who produced “All in the Family,” says in the documentary that it was Davis’ idea to plant a kiss on the cheek of Carroll O’Connor’s character Archie Bunker — a bigoted white man — in his guest appearance on the show.

And, of course, in 1961 Davis was the first famous Black entertainer in Hollywood to convert to Judaism — at a Las Vegas ceremony after studying with Rabbi Max Nussbaum at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

In 1953, Davis met and would go on to become lifelong friends with performer Eddie Cantor. Cantor gave Davis a mezuzah, which Davis wore around his neck as a good luck charm.

On Nov. 15, 1954, Davis was in a horrific car accident in San Bernardino while driving back to Los Angeles from a show in Las Vegas. He lost his left eye in the crash and later said it was the one night he forgot to wear the mezuzah. During his stay in the hospital, the hospital’s chaplain rabbi visited him.

In the documentary Davis says that despite his mother being Catholic and his father Baptist, “After the accident I needed something desperately to hold onto. I found myself being more and more convinced that Judaism was it for me. I know there’s sort of a kinship between the plight of a Negro and the plight of a Jew: the oppression, the segregation, the constant trying to survive and trying to achieve dignity.”

Davis also speaks about the difficulty of coming back from the accident. He recalls how his great friend Jerry Lewis flew out in his private plane to Davis’ hospital bedside. “All I did was sit with him for seven days,” Lewis says in the film.

Davis also speaks openly about how it took him two years to achieve the simple act of pouring water into a glass from a pitcher.

Davis didn’t merely pay lip service to his newly embraced religion. While filming “Porgy and Bess” in 1959, he told studio head Samuel Goldwyn that he would not work on Yom Kippur. He would continue to publically embrace his Judaism.

At the beginning of the documentary, Davis, Sinatra and Martin are performing onstage when Sinatra says, “I’ve got to catch a train soon.” Davis quips, “What are you complaining about? I’ve got to go to a bar mitzvah in a minute.”

Davis’ adopted son, Manny, recently told the Journal in an email, that he had found his father’s conversion “strange.” Initially raised not practicing any religion, Manny said he always thought that Jews and Catholics were white. After being adopted by Davis and Altovise, Manny wrote, “I now had a Black Catholic mother and a Black Jewish father. I didn’t know what to think.” However, he added, his parents had a plaque on their front door that read, “Anyone of any race, creed, color or religion is welcome in this home, as long as you bring love in your heart.”

Davis spent his personal and professional lives trying to be both included and inclusive. In the documentary, American Jewish historian David Kaufman notes, “Sammy was a one-eyed Negro Jew appearing together on the same stage [as the Rat Pack]. It was a pretty powerful statement of inclusion. He [was] one of the boys.”

It was precisely Davis’ combination of being Black and Jewish that made him such an iconic touchstone. In an email to the Journal, Kaufman said, “These two outsider groups are arguably the most representative minorities in the American historical experience, and, inarguably, together they have been the most essential contributors to American popular culture — a culture which cannot be imagined without the Jews who created Hollywood, the Blacks who created Jazz, the Jews who dominated American comedy, the Blacks who dominated American sports, the Jews who monopolized the Broadway musical, the Blacks who monopolized popular dance, and the many, many artists of both groups who gave us the American songbook.”

Manny Davis said he believed the Jewish community embraced his father because “he was an extremely talented entertainer who, at the time, experienced a horrible tragedy that could’ve made most people give up on the hope of having a better life. The fact that he was ‘colored’ lent a certain dynamic that was ahead of its time. He embraced the religion for the rest of his life.”

It’s also something Sammy Davis Jr. addresses in a clip in the documentary, when he says, “When you are a performer, you deal with such intangibles that you really need a religion to hold onto.”

Sammy Davis Jr. takes aim in a backstage photo with dancers from one of his shows in a scene from “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Photo from the Estate of Altovise Davis.

However, it was the “tangibles” that also played a role in the entertainer’s demise. Much like the dancer in “The Red Shoes,” Davis could not stop performing and could not stop seeking the limelight and the embrace of audiences.

That urge to keep going, to keep performing, to keep traveling and to keep entertaining led to the unraveling of his marriage to May Britt, and to complicated relationships with his children.

Coming from a life of poverty, Davis embraced all the excesses that came with his hard-won successes. He always had to wear the most expensive clothes and buy the most expensive cars.

His excesses literally killed him. Davis was always smoking. In a clip in the documentary with talk-show host Larry King, Davis tells of how he promised his doctors he would quit smoking, and then, cigarette in hand, tells King on national television that, yes, he lied to his doctors.

The King appearance would be Davis’ last major interview. Barely two years later, on May 16, 1990, he died in his Beverly Hills home from laryngeal cancer.

The documentary is a fitting legacy for a man nicknamed “Mr. Show Business,” who nevertheless felt he wouldn’t be remembered. Although his only No. 1 hit would come in 1972 from the song “The Candy Man” — written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” — Davis would always be “Mr. Bojangles,” for one of his famous songs. Originally penned as a country song in 1968 by Jerry Jeff Walker, Davis made it his own when he first recorded it in 1972.

“Mr. Bojangles” focuses on a phenomenally talented entertainer who ultimately disappears into oblivion. “That’s my fear,” Davis says in the documentary. “I’ll land up like Mr. Bojangles.”

The documentary proves otherwise. As a voice-over in the film states: “Sammy was show business from the tip of his toes to the top of his head.”

In November 1989, the Shrine Auditorium in Hollywood hosted an event celebrating Davis’ 60th year in entertainment. Although he was very ill, Davis slipped on his tap shoes and literally went toe-to-toe onstage with a much younger Gregory Hines, the renowned tap dancer, singer and actor.

Pop music legend Michael Jackson then came onstage and sang a moving tribute to Davis with the song, “You Were There.”

As the camera pans across Davis’ face, he can be seen fighting back tears.

He died six months later.

As Billy Crystal notes at the end of the documentary:

“He was a wonderful, one-of-a-kind comet who flew past the Earth way too quickly.”

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